BEIJING — The absurdity of the situation hit me on Wednesday when I was coming home from a local bar at 8 p.m. I had ridden my bike a few hours earlier to a park for a walk and then to meet a friend — my first human contact in five days, excluding the cashier at the grocery store.
But the side gate I’d used to leave the enormous Communist-era compound was now chained shut. What? A notice in Chinese said it was locked to prevent the spread of the new coronavirus.
So I headed toward the north entrance. That one is for pedestrians and has two barriers set slightly apart, just wide enough to get through on foot. That’s O.K., I thought, I can squeeze by with my bike and be home in a few minutes.
I rode around the block, but when I got to the gate I had to slam on the brakes. Someone had taken a dozen ride-share bikes, lashed them together with wire and piled them in between the barriers. Then, for good measure, they’d fastened the heap to the posts with more wire, making it into some sort of postmodern commentary on our hyper-mobile society.
Laughing, I rode on to the main entrance. It has a car entrance with a big gate and on either side, walkways for pedestrians. One of those was also piled high with ride-share bikes sacrificed for the national good; the other was protected by two security guards I’d never seen before. They blocked my way.
“What do you want?” one of them asked.
“To go home. I live here.”
“Have you been to Wuhan recently?”
“I just rode back. I’m exhausted!”
The humor was beyond their pay grade.
“Is anyone in your home from Wuhan or has been there recently?”
I needed to stop fooling around.
“No, I haven’t been there in four years. I live alone. No fever. I feel fine.”
They silently let me through.
This felt like the height of foolishness: Why would the gates be open during the day but locked down at night? Do viruses operate like vampires? That’s when I realized the guards’ effort was just part of a Borg-like lockdown that the state had put into place with the alacrity of officials in full C.Y.A. mode.
The next day I was cleaning my apartment: No one could enter Beijing anymore, so my one luxury, an hour-a-week house cleaner, was stuck in her village even though the main phase of the Lunar New Year holiday was over. There was a knock on my door. It was the good people from the apartment management office, Mrs. Luo and her assistant.
“Oh, Mr. Zhang, nice to see you,” Mrs. Luo, the henna-haired manager of lease renewals, said, addressing me by my Chinese name. “Is there anyone from Wuhan in your apartment?”
“No. Still not.”
“O.K. Take a look at this please.”
She handed me a sheet from the local Communist Party district committee, listing dos and don’ts to follow during the outbreak.
Do seek help. Do listen to the local government. Do keep warm. Do stay at home. Do avoid contact. Do wash your hands. Don’t spit. Don’t exert yourself too much. Don’t associate with people who’ve recently arrived from the infected area around the megacity of Wuhan. On the back was a list of all the Communist Party street committees and their phone numbers.
Finally, after five years of living in this neighborhood and countless failed efforts to register my complaints about illegal construction at night, I had some phone numbers. I filed the sheet for future use.
The German language has, as usual, a hyper-specific word for this phenomenon: “Aktionismus,” literally Actionism, or action for action’s sake. What I was witnessing was Aktionismus in the face of a problem that required a sensitive response involving public trust. But since the Chinese government cannot elicit either of those things, I was seeing the compensatory flailing-around of a state with no other options.
Instead of having an adult conversation with the population about the virus and putting in place reasonable policies that have been used effectively elsewhere, the Chinese state has gone into full lockdown mode. This demonstrates one of those truisms from political science: Authoritarian governments are like people who don’t have any fingers but do possess two thumbs. They can make forceful actions but can’t fine-tune the levers of government.
Actually, I’m not being fair. When the Chinese Communist Party has time, it can come up with and use sophisticated policies — witness its co-opting of traditional faiths to fill a spiritual vacuum in society.
But when faced with a crisis, the party can’t seem to avoid grand gestures: building hospitals from scratch in two weeks, locking down tens of millions of people, banning millions more from traveling to big cities and so on. In some ways, a moment like this one is a technocrat’s dream: When Western health care experts say that this sort of lockdown won’t work, they basically mean it’s never been tried on this scale with this kind of uber-efficient government.
Now that it’s being tried, not just in Beijing but across the country, the effects are kind of thrilling to watch. Apartment compounds like mine are being fumigated. (With what? Who cares!) People are walking around with loudspeakers blaring out warnings against the virus. Villages are closing their gates as if bandits were on the prowl. And going to a restaurant or a bar is almost an act of treason or, at best, foolish selfishness.
The most interesting question is why the party feels the need to carry on like this. I think it knows the people don’t trust it in these cases and assume there has been a cover-up.
Hence one of the most popular figures in the crisis: Zhong Nanshan, the hero of the 2002-03 SARS outbreak, now 83, who is back in action, treating patients and warning citizens about the need for hygiene. He has been adopted as the incorruptible official — a familiar trope in Chinese history, the Confucian official who stands tall despite pressures to bend. And so we read endless profiles of Dr. Zhong in Chinese social media, discussing his family background, upbringing, successes and apolitical pursuit of science-based truth. The clear implication is that he is that rare official capable of such principled conduct.
Behind all this lies the feeling that most other people in the party can’t quite be trusted. This has been reinforced over the past few days by reports that at least eight people who were detained in Wuhan in early January on charges of spreading rumors are in fact medical doctors, not fear-mongering ne’er-do-wells. This startling fact is now leaking out in online reports that are sometimes, but not always, being blocked. At some point, the government will have to admit to a partial cover-up.
Considering the underlying distrust, it’s hard for the government to say what many epidemiologists are saying: This outbreak is serious but not catastrophic. Because if the state leveled with the people, it would also have to admit that there is no need for this degree of social control. Fewer than 200 people were reported to have died as of Thursday evening, in a country of nearly 1.4 billion, and there is no indication that we are at the start of a Hollywood disaster-style movie.
The government’s inability to formulate a measured response will turn this outbreak into a direct successor of the SARS epidemic. That hardly was a huge public health disaster — fewer than 800 deaths — yet it has taken on a legendary reputation as a catastrophe of unimaginable proportions, one that should never be allowed to recur.
But of course a new outbreak has occurred.
Does this mean that the state will suffer? I don’t think so. For despite their mistrust of the system, people overall are going along with the lockdown. In private conversations and on chat rooms, they say it’s impossible not to take drastic action in a country as big as China.
In this sense, the population has absorbed the government’s narrative of Chinese exceptionalism: Running China requires a strong hand, and these measures, as absurd as they seem, are proof that the government is doing a good job — and portend that the party will come out of this, as always, triumphant.
Ian Johnson (@iandenisjohnson) has lived in Beijing for more than 20 years. He is an inaugural recipient of a Robert B. Silvers Foundation grant for a book on historical memory.